The Broward State Attorney’s Office has declined to prosecute three Coconut Creek police officers mixed up in a scheme to improperly access confidential law enforcement databases for personal reasons.
Instead, Coconut Creek officials who sought criminal charges only made stick a trio of lesser administrative charges against two of the officers.
Coconut Creek Patrol Sgt. David W. Freeman was suspended for one day without pay. Officer Laurence A. Christopher Jr. was suspended two days without pay.
Sgt. Curtis Cuddeback, granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony, was not disciplined.
The state’s closeout memo contains a legal analysis by Broward public corruption prosecutors who concluded that Florida’s poorly worded statute on computer-related crimes prevented them from filing criminal charges.
COPS GET A BREAK
Prosecutors said that while Freeman and Christopher may have exceeded their authority when they accessed data for non-case related purposes, such behavior by police is not a crime under Florida law.
“The onus is on the state to draft statutes with specificity so as to delineate the actions it seeks to prohibit,” says the memo written by Assistant State Attorney Deborah Zimet.
“Had officers done this before 2007, it is possible it could have been prosecuted as a crime. As the closeout memo details, a decision that year by the 4th District Court of Appeal now holds that such actions are to be handled administratively,” said state attorney’s spokesman Ron Ishoy.
Broward prosecutors, however, have not sought legislation that would make it a crime for police personnel to misuse sensitive information obtained from law enforcement databases they were otherwise authorized to access.
After concluding they could do nothing, prosecutors sent the case back to Coconut Creek Police “for whatever administrative action they deem appropriate.”
Prosecutors did not, however, refer the case to the Florida Commission on Ethics. The commission prosecutes civil violations of Florida’s Code of Ethics, including misuse of public position. Violators face penalties that include dismissal, suspension, demotion, and a civil penalty up to $10,000.
In December 2010, a report on public corruption by Florida’s Statewide Grand Jury urged the Legislature to criminalize the misuse of public position. That didn’t happen.
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said the State Attorney’s failure to send the matter to the ethics commission for review was another example of its continuing “refusal or reluctance to stand up to police misbehavior.”
“You’re breeding future contempt for the law,” Finkelstein said.
CITY SOUGHT CRIMINAL CHARGES
The city sought criminal charges against its three officers last winter in an internal investigation prepared by then-Coconut Creek Deputy Police Chief Robert Biondolillo.
The investigation started after it was learned that Freeman and Christopher had accessed the law enforcement databases in early 2011 to help Cuddeback, their friend, check out the owner of a car he was buying, according to the state’s close out memo.
At the time, Cuddeback was not a police officer. He’d been fired a few weeks earlier for a variety of alleged misconduct – including neglect of duty, leaving his post and falsifying records.
Cuddeback was reinstated last April – amid the state attorney’s criminal probe –after a federal arbitrator decided that his dismissal was too harsh. The mediator instead ordered Cuddeback to serve a 70-day suspension without pay.
Cuddeback was also suspended for six days in May 2010 after his car rolled over in Richfield Township in central Michigan in 2009 and he was arrested for drunk driving.
Michigan police reported Cuddeback was visibly impaired and his blood alcohol content was measured at .203, above the legal limit. He was later adjudicated guilty of the lesser offense of careless driving and paid a $185 fine, records state.
Despite his checkered past, Sgt. Cuddeback today oversees Coconut Creek Police’s training and records units.
TARGETED COPS REFUSED TO TALK
Prosecutors granted immunity to Cuddeback after Officers Freeman and Christopher each declined to give a sworn statement.
Under oath, Cuddeback told prosecutors how in January and February 2011 he asked his friends to run six different law enforcement database queries to help him check ownership of a 2005 Cadillac he wanted to buy from Palm Beach County resident Mark Freseman.
Cuddeback explained that Freseman had only recently acquired the car and there was a question as to whether the title had been properly transferred.
The first police check revealed the car was registered to Joel L. Goode, and included his address in Palm Beach. Follow-up checks in February disclosed the car was then registered to Freseman.
Cuddeback told Assistant State Attorney Zimet the officers only provided him information about who owned the car, not more problematic personal information such as the birthdates and addresses of the previous owners.
Prosecutors accepted Cuddeback’s story, apparently without question. The closeout memorandum mentions no attempt by them to verify his story with those former owners, or to inform them that their personal information had been improperly accessed.
BrowardBulldog.org could not locate Goode. An attorney for Freseman did not respond to requests for comment.
Prosecutors accepted another assertion by Cuddeback that the Coconut Creek Police will sometimes release the same kind of data to people who come to the station and ask for it.
“Consequently, he did not think it would present a problem,” the closeout memo says.
A ranking member of the Coconut Creek police who spoke on condition of anonymity disputed Cuddeback’s assertion, saying the department does not do that.